DURHAM | Feb. 22, 2018 – Federal officials in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) will monitor Durham Public Schools (DPS) as part of a resolution agreement that ends a federal investigation into the school district’s discipline practices. The agreement reached earlier this month was sparked by a 2013 complaint filed by Advocates for Children’s Services (ACS) of Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project of UCLA.
According to the complaint, Black students and students with disabilities in DPS were suspended more frequently than their peers in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws. The resolution agreement requires the district to take immediate action to make its discipline policies and practices more fair and equitable.
“For years, we have seen DPS push Black students and students with disabilities out of school and into the court system at much higher rates than their White and non-disabled classmates,” said Aisha Forte, staff attorney at ACS. “In addition to being unlawful, these exclusionary discipline practices harm individual students and the overall school community. We hope that this resolution agreement will stop the flow of children into Durham’s school-to-prison pipeline and bring about meaningful and lasting change in the district.”
The resolution agreement outlines several action steps that the district must take in the coming year. These steps include:
· Appointing a Discipline Supervisor to oversee discipline practices across the district;
· Developing a Discipline Action Plan to ensure discipline referrals and consequences are appropriately and equitably applied regardless of race or disability status;
· Reviewing and revising current student discipline policies with input from OCR;
· Ensuring robust data collection and self-monitoring;
· Providing ongoing training to district staff regarding fair and equitable imposition of discipline;
· Improving guidelines and data collection for school police;
· Engaging community stakeholders in the process; and
· Reviewing alternative school placement procedures.
In response to the multi-year civil rights investigation and growing community pressure to decrease suspensions and address disparities, DPS had already started taking important steps to combat discrimination in the district, including hiring an Equity Director and engaging community stakeholders in reviewing and revising DPS discipline policies. However, despite these efforts, the district saw a spike in the use of suspension last school year, and parents continue to report that their children face discrimination in Durham Public Schools.
“I want to send my son to school every day trusting that his teachers and administrators will support and fight for him like they would any student,” said parent Tajuana Parker, who was one of many parents who shared stories of discrimination with OCR during the course of its longstanding investigation. “However, instead of pushing my son to reach his potential, it too often feels like they are spending their time and energy finding ways to push him out of school.”
OCR will continue to monitor the agreement through at least September 1, 2019. In addition to federal monitoring, various parent and community advocacy groups are calling on the district to take bold action to ensure all children have the same opportunity to succeed.
“We are glad the district is acknowledging this problem and open to taking action,” said Jovonia Lewis, a DPS parent and member of the Education Committee of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. “However, if DPS truly wants to make things better for Black and Brown children, it will be important to ensure that students and parents of color have a meaningful voice at the table. We are eager to work with the district to bring about the systemic changes needed to make DPS a place where all children can learn and thrive.”
National experts praise the resolution agreement, highlighting its potential to create positive change in the district and enable Durham to serve as a model for districts across the country. “Based on research on what effective practices can do, I anticipate that most leaders and teachers will be happy with the changes, if they are implemented with integrity,” noted Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project and a collaborator on the 2013 complaint to OCR. “The result of this agreement should be improved academic outcomes and improved school climate overall.”
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Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity. Advocates for Children’s Services is a special project of Legal Aid that works to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline in North Carolina through legal advocacy, community education and community collaboration.